Sunday, June 24, 2012

Respect for foreign laws, customs is the only way to travel

The column was originally published in Arab news

I have never been shy about expressing my rage when countries — whether Muslim or non-Muslim — strip women of their rights and make demands on how they live their lives.
This includes France with its discriminatory laws banning the niqab that criminalizes women from practicing their religion. But regardless of my position on wearing the niqab in the West, I believe Islam is very flexible by showing individuals the right path and then giving them the right to make choices. Whether a woman wants to wear the niqab is nobody’s business but between her and Allah.

However, I do not have much sympathy for the three Saudi women who were refused entry to France at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport on June 11 because they were wearing the niqab. French border police returned them on a flight to Doha after the women refused to unveil.
To their credit, the three Saudi women haven’t whined about their treatment from French authorities. And frankly, it is too late for that. The time for the Muslim community to speak up against the French anti-niqab law was in 2010 before it was signed into legislation. Our failure to summon up representation in the French Muslim community to protest against the law has only helped institutionalize anti-Muslim bigotry. Now, French law officials have fined as many as 300 women for wearing the face veil.
Still, the law is the law. And as we often say in Saudi Arabia to foreign visitors, respect our laws, customs and traditions. We ask foreigners to observe Saudi laws no matter how offensive they perceive them. If you want to drink alcohol go to a country that permits it. Do it in Saudi Arabia and go to jail. It is simple and clear-cut. There is no ambiguity.
There is little difference with the attitude of French authorities. When Saudis choose of their own free will to travel to France — and now Belgium — respect their niqab bans no matter how offensive it is as a Muslim. If you do not like the ban, do not go. France is perhaps the most secular nation on the planet. Their distaste for outward displays of religion and non-French culture is evident with their bans on the hijab and other religious symbols in public institutions. It is not a secret.
The irony, of course, is that French authorities passed the law in part because they perceive it as oppressive and a violation of women’s rights. Never mind that preventing women from wearing an article of clothing is also an infringement of civil liberties and freedom of religion (Yes, I recognize that Saudi Arabia has its own restrictions on clothing and religion, but we don’t pretend to be a democracy).
The three Saudi women chose to fly from Doha to Paris knowing full well of France’s niqab ban. At the airport, border police refused them entry because they would not remove the niqab. The women’s behavior is wrong on so many levels. They are at the airport. They have their passports with their photos in their hands. They are expected to identify themselves by having the passport officer match the passport photo with their face.
We expect at Saudi Arabia airports that women remove their niqab for the female passport officer in a private room to examine the travel documents to match the face to the photo.
It is unclear whether the women were turned away because of the niqab ban or because they refused to submit to identification at the airport. Later reports said French authorities fined the women for violating the law before putting them on the Doha-bound plane.
This smacks of overkill. They were at the border and refused entry, but still fined for violating the law? Talk about piling it on.
Foreigners have the luxury of deciding where to spend their holiday. If those visitors choose to spend their money in a country with a history of discrimination then it is their choice. But we should remember that Muslims who live in France have no choice. They may have no country to return to because either they were born in France and are French citizens, or they left their own native home out of economic necessity. Instead of contributing to the economy that openly discriminates against Muslims, perhaps foreign visitors should consider spending their money in a country that treats its people with more respect.
There’s a time and a place for standing up for one’s rights. If you fly into the United States and get turned away for wearing a veil, then by all means make a big stink about it, seek justice and hold those who made the decision accountable. There is no US law banning the veil.
Fly to France or Belgium and leave the niqab at home. Your rights end at the border. It’s the sad truth.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Saudi Youths Ready for Volunteerism, but is the Business Community?

This column was originally published in the Arab News.

IN the Eastern Province, 30 young Saudi men and women participate in a novel project. I say it is novel because they have acted upon what is usually just an idle thought for most of us when we see leftover food at a hotel or restaurant.

These young Saudis and the Eastern Province business community convinced some hotels and large restaurants not to throw away their unused leftovers, but leave it for them. The Saudis pick up the unused food, re-package it under strict health standards and distribute it to the poor. The project is the brainchild of a group of business executives who saw waste and decided to do something about it, while at the same time giving young Saudis a sense of purpose.

This fledgling grass-roots effort at volunteerism follows what was probably the first sign that young Saudi men and women were becoming aware of community service when they turned out by the hundreds to help clean up following the Jeddah floods of November 2009 and January 2011 that killed more than 100 people.

We know that social media led by the young generation of Saudis helped organized the clean-up efforts. Those same Saudis were also responsible for condemning through social media sites the inadequacies of the Jeddah municipality’s infrastructure that helped create dangerous conditions that led to the floods.

Civic-minded Saudis? Is that possible? We are well aware of our reputation among the expat community — with some justification — of the sense of entitlement among Saudis. Getting our hands dirty and exposure to the unpleasantness of poverty is for others, isn’t it?

Maybe not so for the new generation. Today’s Saudis reaching adulthood are more self-aware, worldlier and less patient than the old stereotype. Social media has led to social activism, but writing for an audience of like-minded individuals has its limits. Young people want to put their words into action.

The tragedy, as far as I know, is there are no, or few, organizations to channel that energy into productive community service. We spent the past 30 years developing an intense mistrust of our young people to the point that we view their even most innocent actions with suspicion. We had chased young men from malls, although a recent law lifted the mall ban in some cities. We gave young men no place to go other than the singles’ section of coffee shops, restaurants and sheesha parlors. There are no modern public libraries, clubs or parks to speak of. Public interaction with a woman is treated as a potential sexual assault. We ban women from driving cars because men can’t be trusted with their emotions. The guarantee of a government or private sector employment long since disappeared unless the job applicant possesses a university degree, and even then the competition is stiff.

Faith in the young Saudi male is so bereft that the Internet is their only solace. And it is the Internet and social media that young men and women discovered their own self-worth by reading and watching the example of others.

To ward off boredom and give young Saudis a sense of purpose, the local businesses with the support of the Saudi government needs to explore the benefits of community service. A building fire leaves a family dead because no one knew simple techniques to aid the victims. Volunteer service with a local Civil Defense fire station could prevent such tragedies with Cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and fire prevention training. Programs similar to the Explorer Scouts in the United States allows young people to work in police stations that helps them decide whether a career in law enforcement is an option. Delivering meals to the elderly and neighborhood cleanup are other options.

The consequences of failing Saudi youths are severe. Nearly three-quarters of the young women who graduated with university degrees have no job. The official overall unemployment rate among Saudis is 10.9 percent in 2010, up from 10.5 percent in 2009. As of 2008, the overall unemployment rate of Saudis between the ages of 15 and 24 was 28.2 percent. An estimated 45.8 percent of girls and young women in that age range were unemployed.

There are only so many malls that can be built and so many things to buy before the new generation realizes they are unfulfilled and yearn for a productive life that provides the emotional rewards beyond just earning a living.

Emotional rewards are found in those rare community groups like the 2-year-old Ita’am program, the food bank in the Eastern Province that scours the hotels and restaurants to bring food to the needy. Those 30 young Saudi men and women, with the support of their benefactors, do the heavy lifting in the project and are expected to help feed nearly 5,000 poor families by the end of 2012. The program isn’t just limited to feeding the poor, but also gives Saudis vocational training and job skills.

Those 30 Saudis are the lucky ones. Perhaps it’s time the rest of the Kingdom’s businesses step in and create similar programs. Social corporate responsibility is a concept that should be highly emphasized.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Stigma Impedes Women Nurses’ Independence

This column originally was published in the Arab News.

ONE of the first events I attended in Saudi Arabia after a five-year absence to study in the United Kingdom was a graduation ceremony for women nursing students at the King Saud bin Abdulaziz University Nursing College in Jeddah.

I watched the graduating nurses walking and speaking with confidence during the ceremonies as they chanted, “I am a nurse and I am proud of it.”

Their English was fluent and they spoke of serving their country with “dignity, honor and self-esteem.”
Seated with the graduating nurses was Princess Hessa bint Trad Al-Shaalan, King Abdullah’s wife, who handed each nurse her certificate and treated them all like a proud mother.

Princess Hessa’s presence at the graduation ceremony was significant as it signaled the king’s continued support to empower women to obtain an education and find employment.

Yet thousands of Saudi women earning university degrees in the Kingdom or returning home after obtaining certificates from foreign universities face a tight job market. However, nursing as a woman’s occupation remains a relatively open field that has been largely ignored by Saudis because of the stigma attached to female nurses working in a mixed environment and caring male patients in a manner considered too familiar.

Judging from the attitudes I witnessed at the graduation ceremony, Saudi women’s attitudes are changing. Saudi society in general? Not so much.

Saudi conservatives have taken a hard line against women working in nursing because they work under the supervision of men and work as colleagues. Saudi women nurses are also perceived as glorified maids. While teaching at the nursing college, my students often face harsh opposition from their fathers and brothers. Some students told me that their fathers and brothers only agreed to allow them to become a nurse on the condition the women give them their stipends or salaries once they become employed. Some nursing students quit the university in mid-semester under immense pressure from their families.

It’s no wonder that there is a chronic shortage of Saudis, particularly women, in the health care industry.

The first Saudi female nursing college originated in 1961 and offered a two-year program. By 1992, there were 46 health institutes in Saudi Arabia. In 2008, the last year nursing statistics were available from the Ministry of Health, there were 101,298 nurses employed in the government health care sector.

Yet Saudis accounted for only 29 percent of those nurses. The numbers are even more dismal in private health care facilities: Only 4 percent of the private health care professionals were Saudi.
According to a 2011 International Nursing Review study, only 12 percent of all Saudi nurses are women.

Turnover in employment, according to the same study, remains high because of the lack of awareness in nursing job opportunities, conflicts with the family and difficult working conditions, such as night shifts, long hours, working holidays and weekends, and relatively low salaries.

Despite these obstacles, the women I have spoken to want these jobs and are willing to put up with the modest income and difficult working hours.

Notwithstanding the families who abuse their daughters and sisters’ trust by demanding their salaries in exchange for having a job, most Saudi women want the independence and tremendous boost in self-esteem that comes with that independence.

Teachers don’t teach and journalists don’t write to become rich. They perform their jobs to serve their community. They make the world a better place to live by teaching their community’s children or providing information to help people better understand the world. The same applies to nursing. What better way to serve our community by aiding the sick and dying. It’s a noble profession that deserves better treatment from Saudi society.

And for those women seeking financial fulfillment and security, nursing offers a stepping stone to higher paying administrative jobs, management positions in the government or private health sector, or even as a medical doctor.

I have high hopes for the graduating nurses at my university, but I also appreciate the obstacles they face from their families, friends and even the patients they will care for. It won’t be easy. If we continue to cling to outmoded ideas, traditions and customs, we set up Saudi women for failure.

I see today’s young women with their new nursing certificates as trailblazers who honor and further the cause of the first female nursing graduating class from 1963. But I also have to wonder why is it that 49 years later Saudis still struggle to give female nurses the respect they deserve.
The picture is taken from

Women need to know about their rights

An incident recently at a Riyadh mall and posted on YouTube revealed a startling altercation between a young Saudi woman and the Haia over an all too common theme in our country: Men telling women what is and isn't appropriate to wear.

In this case, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Haia) attempted to eject a young Saudi woman from the mall because they deemed her nail polish — and as the confrontation continued, her lipstick — inappropriate and provocative. As soon as commission members approached the woman, she began recording the incident on her telephone and she challenged the men to explain their reasoning for throwing her out of the mall.
YouTube is full of interesting and entertaining confrontations between members of the public and the Haia, especially when women are involved. What makes this incident different is the young woman's knowledge of her rights and what the Haia is permitted to do and what not to do.
She knew, for example, of the new edict that prohibits commission members from chasing and harassing people going about their business.
She also was aware that the appropriateness of her nail polish was in the eye of the beholder. A minor infraction over the color of one's nail polish hardly requires being thrown out of a public mall.
Judging from the video, the Haia was clearly flummoxed over the aggressive response from the woman. At one point when a commission member pointed out that the woman's lipstick was also inappropriate, the woman replied, "Why are you looking at my mouth?"
I won't judge the Haia's intentions. And it's not for me to say whether the woman's nail polish or her behavior deserved special attention.
The larger picture is this young lady knew her rights and exercised them to her advantage. She summoned the police to complain she was harassed and chased for what she says was no reason and she documented the exchange. She also reminded commission members that actions were contrary to pronouncements of their ultimate boss Sheikh Abdullatif Al-Asheikh. It is a rare thing in Saudi Arabia when individuals have a clear understanding of what rights they possess and how to protect themselves.
Saudi women are at an extreme disadvantage. There are no women's advocacy groups or even social clubs. There are no institutions at the ministry or municipal level that provide resources for women to understand their rights. We are not provided adequate information on our rights in domestic courts pertaining to divorce and child custody, nor do most women have a full understanding of their rights to inheritance.
Without this knowledge we are at the mercy of individuals who interpret laws as they see fit.
Did the young woman break a law? It seems no. Did she violate the Saudi norms of modesty?
Who is to say? The lines of modesty move from day to day and from region to region. What is considered inappropriate dress in Riyadh is perfectly acceptable in Jeddah. So how a woman from Jeddah is to behave when she visits a mall in Riyadh?
Consistent application of the law — indeed, if there is one to govern how women should dress — is the foundation of a civilized society. And knowledge of those laws by both the Saudi population and legal authorities allow us to function in society without upsetting the customs and traditions of our country. In the case of the woman in the mall, I venture that based on the video she had a better understanding of her rights than the Haia.
I am not suggesting that every woman harangue the Haia over the slightest confrontation, but as a form of self-protection women should be aware of their rights and state those rights to legal authorities while insisting a response.
This can only be accomplished through a government-sponsored awareness program. We have similar breast cancer and obesity awareness programs.
A similar effort to publicize women's rights that target women and training programs for legal authorities will go a long way toward minimizing regretful confrontations such as the one in Riyadh.
Following the mall incident, an online Saudi news organization reported the Haia had indicated that it might prosecute the young woman for recording and disseminating the video of the commission members performing its duties, although there are dozens of YouTube videos of the Haia doing its job without resulting in the arrest of the videographers. The Haia also identified the woman through her mobile phone number when she called the police.
It is disturbing the woman may have won a Pyrrhic victory: Successfully arguing the Haia violated her rights, but facing jail time for documenting that victory.
* The article originally appeared in the Saudi Arab news
* The picture is taken from